If complete originality is an impossible goal for a band, Beach House has perhaps achieved the next best thing: Since their self-titled debut in 2006, they’ve ascended to the ranks of Spoon, Animal Collective, the National, the Knife and a scant few others who have identifiable precedents, yet who maintain an aesthetic so complete it’s essentially sui generis. Bands that claim the influence of the aforementioned have probably gone too far. You can’t “kinda” sound like Beach House. You can’t beat Beach House at their own game.
But this presents its own problem: At what point does more Beach House become more of the same? On first blush, their fourth record Bloom acknowledges the need to confront the issue. It’s hardly unusual for a band to follow up their commercial breakthrough with a comparatively “darker” sound and in nominal ways, Bloom goes that route, though maybe I’m just unduly influenced by the shift from Teen Dream’s barely visible orange-and-white zebra design to Bloom’s stark lightshow of a cover.
“It strikes me that people will call Bloom another “lover’s rock” record, despite the overwhelming sadness of it.”
Truth be told, if Bloom is truly in the vein of its three predecessors, we won’t know exactly how it fits into Beach House’s artistic trajectory until the next album. It’s worth retracing their steps. In 2006, their debut came seemingly out of nowhere (Baltimore to be specific) and bore an appropriate air of mystery. The very elements they used to make Bloom were already in place: Victoria Legrand’s alluring and husky vocals drew comparisons to Nico and Mazzy Star’s Hope Sandoval, while Alex Scally’s deceptively active guitar sketched within the outlines drawn by long stretches of keyboard drone and a rudimentary drum machine tick. 2008’s Devotion showed more compositional flair and a more polished if less distinctive production — unlike their self-titled album, there are no flubbed notes on this one. Nonetheless, its reputation has somewhat diminished over the years, the album related as merely a prelude to Teen Dream. Commercially and artistically, Teen Dream was an unmistakable leap. Signed to Sub Pop and working with indie go-to producer Chris Coady, the band responded with “Zebra” and “Norway,” songs that could be crudely but accurately described as Beach House in HD and 3-D. Their prior music oozed and simmered, these bursted with color.
But that’s the thing: on Bloom, there’s nowhere left to leap, and there’s a backwards-looking duality throughout. Much of Teen Dream sounded like coping with a dissolved adult relationship, and the penultimate, heartbreaking gospel ballad “Real Love” was all the more affective for how its title and the album’s might be equivalent fantasies. Bloom appears to be addressing youth directly in the third person, whether on the accusatory “Troublemaker” or “Wild,” which ever so slightly implicates a child with alcoholic parents. Beach House reckon with their past sonically as well, since much of these songs make sure to throw at least one ostentatiously cheap sound effect recalling their earlier days — the drum machine that opens “Myth” is almost comically chintzy, the toy arpeggios leading “Lazuli” as well. Then there’s the brief appearances of abrasive imperfections – the springy guitar scrapes that adorn Scally’s unnerving, one-note solo on “Irene,” the noticeable drawing of breath before Legrand reaches for a bold crescendo on “Wishes.”
So, in short, they’re back in a smaller room with more knowledge of how to fill it, Legrand and Scally exerting their complementary personalities without exploding their boundaries. “Other People” and “The Hours” are vocal showcases, something like Fleetwood Mac circa Tango in the Night trading cocaine with whiskey shots, Legrand delivering some of her most confident and plainspoken hooks. Meanwhile, Bloom contains Scally’s boldest guitar playing yet, whether it’s the thick, distorted riff of “The Hours,” forceful solos on “Irene” and “Wishes” or “On The Sea”’s sympathetic, complex harmonies.
It strikes me that people will call Bloom another “lover’s rock” record, despite the overwhelming sadness of it. Legrand may not be as literal as she was on Teen Dream about heartbreak, yet happiness always seems like a far off, unknowable idea. “On the Sea” is appropriately composed with a shanty-like rhythm, but the ocean mostly appears to be a symbol of bottomless longing. “What comes after this momentary bliss?” she sings on “Myth,” scarcely enjoying the feeling, more resigned to the hangover. But moments like those are indicative of how Bloom’s subtle advances might be more of the emotional variety this time out than sonic. Some colleagues of mine have used this incremental progress to cast Beach House as a one-trick pony, but if writing gorgeous, deeply affecting songs is somehow considered a “trick,” well, I have to agree.
Beach House’s Bloom is out May 15 via Sub Pop. Stream the entire album right now at NPR.